After extensive planning, getting the necessary visas and careful preparing some appropriate set lists, the day had finally arrived for us to set off for China where Na-Mara were playing two concerts and engaging in a range of student related activities at the Diao YuCheng International Music Festival hosted by the Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications (CQUPT) in the Hechuan District of Chongqing in China. On this trip, Rob and I were going to be joined by Dave, acting as our manager and fixer for the duration.
As with most of our gigs, notwithstanding the length of the journey ahead, our first test for the journey was, as always, the M25 at rush hour. Thankfully, our taxi arrived bang on time and navigated a busy but moving motorway well enough for us to arrive at Heathrow Terminal 2 with plenty of time for check in.
Musicians travelling overseas by air will readily testify to the feeling that arises in the pit of their stomachs as their treasured instruments disappear through the rubberised curtain of the oversized luggage bag drop and into the void. Given we were, first, flying to an entry airport (Beijing) and then transferring onto a domestic flight, the feeling was doubled. Would the instrument safely navigate not only the byways of Heathrow airport but then do the same across the vastness of Beijing airport to pop out, intact, at Chongqing airport. (Of course they did, but one sees and hears such horror stories about airports and instruments….)
At 22.30, in one of the last two planes to leave Heathrow Terminal 2 that Wednesday evening, we set off for China. With the time difference, it was already 6.30 on Thursday 24th October in China.
The flight to Beijing was very comfortable and we loved watching the Mongolian hills and steppe lands below us as we passed south of Ulan Bator on a cloudless afternoon. We were then further amazed to then see the serried ranks of high rise apartments and offices stretching out to the horizon in every direction as we came in to land at Beijing; an unforgettable sight.
It will come as no surprise to be told that Beijing airport is a very big, busy, place. By the time we’d disembarked, bussed to the terminal, passed through border control and then gone through the busy domestic flight security check, we were beginning to cut it fine for boarding our 18.00 flight for Chongqing. Indeed, the plane was already boarding by the time we reached the gate.
The flight to Chongqing started very well. Again, clear skies allowed us to watch as night fell over the Chinese landscape; neat settlements, some large, others small, well marshalled and planned with their evening lights coming on. However, about halfway into the flight, as darkness was complete, we must have crossed a weather front at a point where the wind was being pushed up over local mountain terrain. This meant that the second half of the two-and-a-half-hour flight was badly affected by violent, juddering, turbulence – without doubt, the worst I’ve ever experienced. Eventually, as the plane began its descent into Chongqing, the turbulence eased and we landed at around 20.45.
With super efficiency the luggage arrived on the carousel and Rob’s Irish Bouzouki was found at the oversized luggage desk. Given, Rob had taken his mandolin with him onto the plane and I was to be provided with both a borrowed and a second, rented, guitar for the festival, we now had all we needed in order to perform and we could relax.
As we exited through the customs area, we met for the first time part of the team that was going to be looking after us for the duration of our stay in Chongqing. Our good friend and main contact in Chongqing teaches English as a foreign language, and he felt his students would very much benefit from the task of accompanying some native English speakers for a week. It was a real relief and a delight to see Bonnie, Lucy and Sue waving their neat Na-Mara placard to catch our attention and we shook hands for the first time. As will be evident from what follows, it was to prove a real pleasure to spend time with these intelligent and lively young women over the following days.
Bonnie, Lucy and Sue guided us through Chongqing airport to where a college minibus was waiting to take us the final leg to our hotel.
It is important at this point to say a few words about Chongqing. Perhaps to us a less well known Chinese city compared to the global metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai, by dint of its history and political definition, Chongqing is not only the biggest municipality in China but, if fact, the biggest municipality in the world. It has an overall population of over 30 million people and covers an area the size of Austria. Even the specific district we were heading for, Hechuan (pronounced Herchwan), has the population size of Birmingham in the UK.
Not surprisingly then, it took over an hour on motorway roads to drive from the airport to our hotel. Fortunately, the journey time was greatly lightened by getting to know our new guides and they us. Our introductory chatter not only demonstrated just how solid a grasp they had of the English language but, more importantly, it also revealed them to be funny, lovely, interested and caring young people. Great company.
Eventually, we reached the hotel and were greeted there by our friend and the main architect of our visit, Clive, and his academic colleague, Jason. It was Jason’s guitar that I was borrowing for the duration of our stay in China.
Having delivered us safely to our hotel accommodation, Jason and our young guides said their goodbyes and, with Clive, we retired to a bedroom for a beer (or two), sitting up until around midnight discussing the plans for the following day. These included joining his spoken English class in the second half of the morning and then a familiarisation walk around the nearby university campus and neighbourhood.
The hotel proved both convenient and comfortable for the duration of our stay and, once unpacked, I, for one, did not need much rocking to get off to sleep.